The Rainbow of Common Sense: How Radical Drug Policy Reform Can Save Us All
Years ago, I punched a cop in the face.
I hate violence, but that solitary act doesn't particularly bother me so much; it was in self defence. He shouldn't have slammed me head first into the wall in the first place. All I wished to do that evening, like every other evening, was buy my drugs in peace and mosey on home. Just stroll back down Lennox Street in a state of bliss, laugh at all the drunk and angry road-ragers in Friday's peak hour traffic, jump on the next Frankston bound train, and nod myself into a semi-conscious dream state. Not too much to ask is it? Why then, in this alcohol-fueled, outwardly bigoted and sexist mainstream society, is that so wrong?
Under Victoria's current archaic drug legislation, the simple, somewhat innocent fact that I happened to be lounging around the apartment of a notorious drug dealer's flat at the time of a seriously drama-queened police raid, deems me instantly a criminal by association. Again; why?
This is my account of how the day went down; it's all true, I was there:
During the blistering heat of the day, I had worked a gruelling eleven hour shift, hand-loading truck after truck with premium advanced trees to be delivered to rich people so they can whinge to the council in twenty years time when their magnificent sea views have been encroached upon. After work, and with my own self-preservation in mind, rather than heading for the increasingly dangerous heroin hotspot on Victoria Street in Richmond, I took a similar commute, but to the private flat of a dealer that I knew well enough to know that all would be harmonious as long as I didn't cross him; and why would I? In recent times, I had been buying directly from the street quite a lot (mostly out of my own sheer unwillingness to make actual verbal contact with a human) and it had become just too over-crawled with desperate, angry people (some call them ice addicts), and of course, young, inexperienced, under-trained, under-resourced police. This day, I played it safe and took my custom away from the street and public view. This is what you people want, right?
Now, of course, I know that I was a junky; scum of the Earth to some of you, poor, helpless bastard to others. I also know that heroin is highly illegal and is considered a Class A Narcotic. Heroin; one-fifteenth of a molecular structure away from morphine, and one-tenth away from Oxycontin; both of which are easily attainable and legal. Unethical science and a society's perverse addiction to the almighty dollar make them so. Maybe my life would have been less complicated if I had just faked a back injury and switched to cheap, subsidised pain killers. No one would judge me then, would they?
Regardless, I bought my drugs with my hard-earned money. Right or wrong, it was my choice. My cross to bear. I deliberately kept off the street and visited a dealer who I knew and trusted, who offered me a quality product for a politely agreed-upon price. We were poster children for the ACCC for Christ's sake!
In my head, I was already home. Relaxing on the couch in front of the television, the 'Chowder Episode' of The Simpsons spewing forth its passively racist hilarity and my dogs gazing inquisitively, wondering what's so damn funny. No harm done. Instead, I ended up drugless, $200 dollars worse off, and in a Richmond C.I.B. holding cell with a smashed face and a pending court date. The angry, balding, sex-starved constable took my shoes, belt and jewellery, in case I might have felt the urge to harm myself. What?! Uhhh, buddy. Didn't you just smash my unprepared face into a concrete wall, or am I imagining all this dried, caked blood all over my clothes? Thanks for your concern though.
After several hours, I really was scouting out ways I could hurt myself, just to alleviate the boredom and oncoming withdrawal symptoms. The thought of banging my head repeatedly against the hard wall for seventy-five years crossed my mind, but I'll just leave that to the Victorian government who have been doing just that in regard to their redundant drug laws for precisely that amount of time. It's not really working for them, is it? Still, they all seem fine with it.
The main issue for our governments of course, is money. No government around the world profits legitimately from the illegal drug trade, but they do profit. Hello again, America! They just don't want us knowing any of that. But we all do. It's like the legend of Bigfoot, we kind of know that something is there, lurking in the snow-obsessed forest, but no one can actually obtain any damning evidence of its existence, and whatever minuscule evidence there might be, is grainier than a Mennonite wheat field. Why do you think the U.S. government have such a massive hard-on for Julian Assange? It sure as hell ain't for his purty blonde locks. Corruption is funny that way.
When drug related crime statistics rise, even the less conservative governments tend to just throw more police at the problem. Then, when things settle down, typically, police numbers are cut for budgetary reasons. So what becomes of the remaining members of the drug squad? They are now left to battle an imminently raging war with a skeletal army. All the top dogs have been promoted to cushy desk jobs. Paper cuts are their worst nightmare. Drug crime will inevitably rise again but now, soldiers on the ground are thin and working under extreme duress. Under resourced, over-stressed, battle fatigued and lacking in judgement. We don't have time to train you, just get out there and fight, boy! With little knowledge of drug addict behaviours and poor, fresh out of the academy social skills, combined with a deteriorating frame of mind, the remaining cops on the beat now need to walk the plank under threats of intimidation from superiors and drug addicts, improvising inadequate counselling techniques, overseeing the streets with a bouncer mentality and applying downright evil brutality when in reality, it's not really needed. All of this while working taxing double shifts for a unit that's already low on morale. It's no less dangerous than a truck driver snorting speed off a truck-stop hooker's breasts and then driving for thirty-six hours straight. Except in this case, the cops have tasers and guns. Someone WILL be killed.
Please don't take this as me making excuses for the police force as a whole. I'm not. Fuck 'em.
The negligent motherfucker that actually did me a favour by straightening my already once broken nose to a semi-socially acceptable angle again, was very young. A testosterone induced, pimply junior who jacks off to lingerie catalogues at lunchtime. He, along with six other Napoleon-complexed, trigger-happy Eastwood wannabes, forced their way into the apartment, without politely knocking first, and caught every single one of us completely off guard. Fair enough, that was their tactic; their upper-hand. Also, we were breaking the law. Fine. But it wasn't until the damage was done, after my face had been smashed in and instinctive reflex caused me to do equally and oppositely react to the over-zealous cop, that I realised that it was actually a policeman. It could have been anyone for all we knew. My dealer had recently been speaking of a Vietnamese street gang that had been forcefully moving in on his suppliers to cut him out of the loop altogether (no, this is not a movie), and his state of paranoia at the time was justifiably high. So, naturally, when a blur of six psychopaths kicked down the door and charged into the apartment grunting thuggish obscurities that sort of resembled the English language, our first reaction was to fight. They came in swinging, we came out swinging. But they were white and we were black. In chess, white always has the first move. There opening gambit was to catapult me head first into a hard, concrete wall. I hate fighting, but when I'm under the impression that my life's on the line, I'm not really sure what else to do?
I am not Robinson Crusoe by the way. This sort of thing goes on thousands of times around the world every damn day. Multiply that by seventy-five years times six neanderthals per raid and you've got 27,000,375 ineffectual raids using 164,000,250 useless, under-resourced, under-prepared pawns that some of you prefer to call policemen. Hang on a moment, my head hurts...
...okay. Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, little Granny Mabel is withdrawing her meagre pension cheque from the bank around the corner, and Macca, the dole bulging heroin addict who just days before was arrested for purchasing drugs for his own personal use, is now free to violently mug poor defenceless Mabel because the police who are usually checking up on him are otherwise preoccupied. Which crime is worse? Personal drug use or bashing an old lady senseless for a few dollars? Doesn't take a rocket surgeon, does it?
Should the problem not be approached holistically? Yeeeee... NO! That would make way too much sense. Besides, how would the poor government then profit from the illegal import and distribution of narcotics with their favourite partners in trade, like say, China? How would our hard-working politicians then afford their limousines?
As much as I generally despise the man's politics, there was one high-ranking Victorian politician a few years back who did actually care; Jeff Kennett. He's loudmouthed, bull-headed and a Hawthorn supporter *insert vomit here* and his sell Victoria off at all costs approach to solving budgetary issues, really left the state in a production gloom come the late 1990's. However, oxymoronically, for a conservative politician, Jeff is actually a very progressive thinker. When he was edging closer to his eventual, but at the time highly unlikely, demise, Jeff bombshelled Victoria with a proposal that would ultimately rescue the state, and perhaps the rest of the country, from its growing heroin scourge. At the time, heroin was being sold on Melbourne's streets at an alarming rate in over a dozen, well-known, well-populated hotspots, including the inner-city's Chinatown. It was powerful and everywhere. As a junky, you could literally smell it in the streets. Without exaggeration, every tenth person on the street in those areas were either buying heroin or selling it. No one was shy about it either. It was as candid as a neon billboard. The heroin death toll sat side-by-side in the newspapers with the state's road toll, and as I've witnessed first hand, it was far easier for a minor to purchase heroin than it was to buy cigarettes or porn.
While other politicians in similar influential positions sat idly by, shrugging their shoulders in a quasi-defeated yet profiteering display of meh, Jeff, for whatever reason, set about trying to reverse the Earth's rotation. He proposed a potential, real, solution, not a Band-Aid one, by suggesting that we remove our addicts from the streets. Not by incarceration or disciplinary measures which have NEVER worked, but by providing safe injecting rooms supplied with clean needles and a safe private environment that is manned around the clock by professional nurses and counsellors. Even several church groups jumped at the chance to help push this radical policy through and offered sections of their respective havens for use in a gesture of goodwill and societal concern. God, for a brief period, was on our side.
But Jeff didn't stop there. He pondered, and ultimately proposed that maybe, just maybe, Victoria could one day become the first place in the world to decriminalise heroin, thus removing it from the streets, and having it administered safely and legally by a qualified pharmacist, much in the same way that methadone had been for many years. Now, back off, put down your knives and sharpening stones, I can hear your angered breathing from here. You're about to say that the methadone program has been a complete failure since its inception in the 1970's, aren't you? I agree. You're right. I was on the stuff for years and it did absolutely nothing to help prevent me from using. If anything, I got an even better buzz from it. The problem was that heroin was just around the corner from my chemist. Just a syringe squirt away. What's the point of supplying a drug legally, that's designed to be reduced over time until the patient feels safe and comfortable enough to take that oh so daredevil jump into the shark tank of Clean City, when said patient can not only get a high from that drug, but also be able to walk out onto the street and score their real drug of choice to amplify the high they already have? I took full advantage of it at the time, but with a clearer, drug-free mind... come on!
Methadone is not an agonist. It does not block opiate receptors, it only feeds them. Its purpose is to allow the addict a level of satisfaction with their stability from a daily dose that he or she won't feel the need to top up by scoring. And admittedly, it works for a short while. Early on, a daily dose of the right measure does actually carry you through until the next day. The first month that I was on methadone had me in a state of bliss. It was my new drug of choice; cheap, legal and with a longer lasting high than heroin. And therein lies the problem. I, like most other addicts that first enter the methadone program, didn't treat the drug as a harm reduction tool, but as a supplemental or base dose to my heroin use. Like all other drugs, after a few belts of methadone, the effect and novelty wore off very quickly, and after one year in the program, my heroin use had increased and my daily methadone dose had tripled.
A lot of pharmacies that are licensed to supply methadone just so happen to lay in close proximity to a particular heroin hotspot. It's the stupidest planning initiative in existence. Get your dose, score some smack. All in the one, convenient location. Not to mention, that many doctors are no longer healers, rather than businessmen who are easily coerced with Big Pharma bonuses and initiatives. It's little wonder that the program has seen nothing but five decades of miserable failure.
But the principle is pure.
Let's say we were to decriminalise heroin and have it supplied only in selected pharmacies. Now, the addict has a choice selection, and there's nothing an addict loves more than options. Apart from methadone, there's the sublingual, partial agonist, Suboxone (slightly more effective), and, if Jeff's plans had come to fruition, guilt-free, strictly monitored heroin. All subsided by the government, all safer and decriminalised and most importantly, life beneficial. A patient must only have the choice of one; multiple opiate sources are a no-no. Heroin would then disappear from the streets faster than you can wash a windscreen, and no longer will the public (you) have to deal with discarded syringes and zombie-like junkies ghosting up and down the street for sometimes hours, waiting for the police to bugger off so they can score in peace. The streets will be clean again and the addict, even if he or she ends up remaining on legal heroin for the term of their natural life, will be stable enough to find work, save money, settle down, have kids... whatever! It's a dream ploy. No junky ever sets out to become a junky, and no current junky actually wants to be a junky. Imagine the lives that will be saved.
If you're one of those soulless, macho wankers that think all junkies deserve to die because it was their choice to stick the needle in blah blah fucking blah, then let's talk about you. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Your life will be enriched too. No more of your hard-earned taxes being spent on enforcing ancient and ineffective drug policy, no more break and enters, no more having to listen to your mother complain about being intimidated by that menacing looking young man standing on the corner who's actually just minding his own business and watching the world go by in a state of euphoria. None of it! Crime rates will free-fall, police resources will be spread more evenly into other areas like, I don't know, going after money grubbing CEO's and politicians (who by the way, are the real ones stealing your tax dollars, do the research). Small businesses located within drug hotspots will thrive again and rise a meteoric boom! Their children will be able to go to better schools, afford better health care... the list goes on and on and on. Still have a problem with it? Selfish.
One simple law change and all of our lives could be much better for it. What's the harm in just trialling this for a nominated period? I don't see any.
Well, back in the dark ages of the late 1990's, the people of Victoria did. Let's not forget that these were the same people who voted in approval of a goods and services tax (your dollars again) and for Queen fucking Elizabeth to remain Australia's head of state. For fuck's sake. Most Victorians were in such an outrage over Jeff Kennett's controversial proposition, that many of them threatened to start voting for gasp... Labor. For this they got upset with Jeff. Not the fact that he had closed hundreds of Victorian schools, sold off mass industry to foreign buyers, brought in over-zealous, highly inflexible road rules, barracked for Hawthorn... no. All those things are fine. But providing a sensible solution to a health and social crisis... FOR SHAME!
Jeff was eventually shouted down in parliament, even by members of his own party in fierce protection of their own greedy interests, and the bill never even got off the ground. Nearly twenty years on, the heroin scourge may have at least publicly subsided for now, mostly due to lack of supply, but the ice scourge has taken its place and is far, far worse than any heroin crisis ever was and is now destroying the lives of kids as young as twelve. Now the addicts are so aggressively violent and unpredictable, that even the police fear to tread the streets of certain areas. I have been talking to a high-ranking officer of the Richmond C.I.B. on and off via email over recent months (he does not wish to be named for fear of reprisal) who said that he and most of his workmates "wish that it was back to the days of heroin being the number one problem." He went on to say that "At least back then, the addicts were mostly placid" and continued by saying that "we were forever coming across veteran heroin addicts who had been using for thirty or forty years. In thirty years, how many ice addicts do you think there'll be? Zero." By zero, he meant that amphetamines age and kill the body's cells and organs much quicker than any grade of heroin ever has. Studies have shown that heroin is not significantly detrimental to the body's natural ageing process. One can't help but ponder what might have been if Jeff's proposed policy actually got off the ground. Oh well, we can still dream of rainbows.
Not too long after the injecting room debacle, one particularly small nation, mostly irrelevant to any of Australia's antiquated interests, Portugal, stepped up in an attempt to solve a drug crisis of their own. Like many points of the globe, heroin abuse and its social effects were a massive problem in Western Europe in the late nineties, and Portugal's capital, Lisbon, was no exception. An alarming study in 1999 revealed that Portugal had the highest HIV rate of all the European Union as well as one of the highest drug-related crime rates. So, in 2001, a liberally minded free-thinking Portuguese government led by newly elected leader, Jorge Sampaio, set about to eradicate the problem. Drug related crimes coupled with the health scourge were taking a harsh toll on the country's fragile economic system and as a result, many nearby nations wholly refused to participate in any form of foreign trade with the beleaguered nation. Things had to change.
A trialled program was soon implemented that allowed decriminalised heroin distribution to be controlled by qualified pharmacologists thus removing it from the streets. The addict had two choices: Participate under the banner of the program's strict rules and regulations, or go cold turkey. There was a new order in town. Heroin had literally disappeared from the streets within months, with drug traffickers now preferring to take their business to nearby Spain where the market was, and still is, far more lucrative. At a fraction of the street price, an addict could report on a daily basis to their local medical centre and be administered their heroin dose in the presence of qualified pharmacologists, nurses and counsellors. Drug-related crime rate plummeted exponentially and police resources were spread far thicker than ever before. Lisbon went from being a highly dangerous city to a relatively safe one in the period of just two years. The plan worked!
Portugal's newly adopted drug policy set a worldwide benchmark for the social benefits of what some might call radical thinking. I'd call it common sense. Drug harm minimisation and substitution programs were put in place as well as social integration, job training, and basic health care programs. The success rate has been astronomical, with thousands of addicts finally receiving the appropriate help they sorely needed without being sucked into the vicious circle of crime and prison. Many now have jobs, families of their own and generally happy lives due to the varying treatments, but also due to a rise in esteem levels from not being constantly branded a junky criminal and a scourge on society. Pride has now replaced fall. To this day, despite undergoing several non-related social issues, namely employment, Portugal enjoys a smoothly operated health sector, that oversees a humane, socially acceptable and well-rounded drug policy program. Holistic is a beautiful word, isn't it?
So why have other nations (other than Canada to an extent) not implemented similar policies. It beggars belief. Ruling governments are usually an analytical lot and base many of their policies on the statistical effect of similar processes seen in other countries. They're copycats. So why not copy in this case? MONEY! Dirty, stinking, fucking money! The root of all evil, the single reason why we are all essentially, pardon my French, cunts.
Not too many western governments feel like losing out on potentially billions of dollars in profit, be it legitimate or otherwise, and pushing through a program such as this, one that is beneficial for the community as a whole, is tantamount to a hell of a lot less under the table drug money. The briefcase industry would go bust in a second. It's so short-sighted.
To many draconian politicians and businessmen, in the now style thinking is best left to the whimsical dreamers and airy-fairy lefties. But what our leaders must do is actually develop a spine, grow some fucking balls, and plan for ours and our children's future. As Portugal has demonstrated, it can all happen very quickly.
But the general public don't like change, let alone radical reform. It's too difficult. Too much to get a grasp on and learn. Too much time taken away from beer and sports. They'll all end up voting for the other guy. The guy who won't change a damn thing. The guy that's happy in the knowledge that his public tolerate him, despite him fleecing them dry with creative loopholing and evasion tactics. Jeff Kennett was a lot of things while in power, but one thing he was not, was self-serving. Even he, the arrogant, bombastic one, was willing to sacrifice his power for the greater good of the community. But a stubborn and selfish voter demographic went into a tizzy and the Victorian Liberal Party got scared and voted him down. Even the only slightly more left (but still right of the middle) Labor Party, knowing that Jeff was actually onto something good for once, voted it down. Now neither government has a legacy, nothing to brag about. It's both theirs and our losses. The Labor Party saw the opportunity to seize power and they took it. Bugger the citizens of Victoria, we want our slice of the heroin-laced pie!
Maybe, if Joe Public wasn't so reactionary to the whims of political and mainstream media propaganda, by now we would all be free of this horrible scourge and be back to the good old days when we could leave our doors unlocked and wave our wallets above our heads in public. Sometimes, even after all of my own horrible drug-related experiences, whether self-inflicted or externally induced, when I'm back in Melbourne and walking around certain neighbourhoods, I look around and choke on my Adam's apple at the fearful effect the current drug epidemic is having on our society. On our cities, country towns, even our children. Sometimes, I don't feel safe walking certain streets of Melbourne at all. That's saying something. Thanks conservatives and spineless hangers on. Good job.
*If you are like-minded in attitude and feel as strongly about drug reform as us at The Low Road, I urge you to please contact your local member of parliament to at least spark a conversation.